Field Notes 12

Midwest BY MARTY ROSS / Kansas City, Missouri, Zone 5

Prickly Business

ALL WINTER LONG, Judy Pigue’s garden near Kansas City looks rocky and barren, but in the spring it stirs mysteriously to life. Early in May, Pigue’s extraordinary hardy cacti have puffed up into recognizable forms and their spines are starting to gleam with health. Big pads of opuntias that looked shriveled and dead in February are suddenly as fresh and vigorous as daffodils. As the sun warms the gravel beds, barrel cacti bristle in the sunlight, with spines so thick they resemble prickly halos. By the end of May, Pigue’s sunny garden has become a fascinating study of eccentric forms, splashed with outlandishly bright flowers. Except for the rocks, all of it is cactus.

Pigue is one of a growing group of cold-climate gardeners captivated by the challenge of growing cacti outdoors year round. This club of hardy gardeners is testing the limits of adaptability of cacti of every description, trading seeds, cuttings, and encouragement. They have banded together to form the Winter Hardy Cactus and Succulent Association (, founded two years ago by Roger “Cactus Jack” Chaneske, who lives in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“Really incredible drainage” is the secret of growing cacti in cold, wet climates, Pigue says, “but you have to experiment.” She grows her cacti in a mixture of gravel, sand, and soil, sometimes leaving the soil out altogether. A collection of large rocks of sandstone, limestone, and granite in her garden beds protects the cacti (like the Grusonia clavata pictured) from harsh winter winds, absorbs heat and radiates warmth, and makes an interesting backdrop year round.

“Snow doesn’t bother the cacti,” Pigue says. “The hardest thing is along about February when you start getting warm and cold and back and forth. Some things that make it through subzero weather, you lose them right then.”

Among the first cacti to bloom in Pigue’s garden, in late May, is Neobesseya missouriensis (also known as Escobaria missouriensis), a clump-forming barrel cactus. The tawny, pointed flower petals seem to flicker like candle flames. One of her favorites is the fierce-looking Opuntia macrocentra, which has wine-colored spines with white tips.

Opuntia is one of the most exciting cactus genera, Pigue says, and the easiest to grow. Hardy cactus gardeners now covet new Opuntia hybrids with white, apricot, maroon, orange, and pink blooms, some with subtle stripes. The flowers last only a day, but they are exceedingly showy. Some new hybrids have flowers up to six inches across, according to “Deadwood” Dave Sierer, who grows hundreds of hardy cacti in Westby, Wisconsin.

Pigue fearlessly handles most cactus plants with her bare hands, although she sometimes wears industrial rubber gloves. For the toughest customers, cactus gardeners rely on barbecue tongs.

“You can do anything with tongs,” says Sierer, who maintains that the length of a pair of tongs is the healthiest distance to maintain between you and your cactus. Even after you get to know and love them, they will stick you cruelly if you let your guard down.

To do in the garden

  • This is the season of abundance at garden shops. Buy early, while the selection is at its best, and set aside a nursery area in the garden where you can take care of new purchases while you decide what goes where.

  • If lilacs, forsythia, quince, and other spring-flowering shrubs need pruning, do it as their flowers fade.

  • Move houseplants into the garden when you’re comfortable outside in a light jacket. The temperature should be in the mid-50s, even at night.

  • Build twiggy supports around peony plants as they send up their leaves, or set peony rings around them.

  • Don’t put up with a gas can that drips gasoline on the lawn, walks, and soil. Before any more goes into the environment, buy a no-spill can; it’s worth the extra expense. The Briggs & Stratton Smart Fill fuel can meets tough California regulations and received a top rating from Consumer Reports.

Worth growing

Rosa ‘Harison’s Yellow’

The rose season starts when ‘Harison’s Yellow” comes into bloom in early May. Long before other roses begin to show their colors, the arching canes of this old rose, introduced in 1830, are covered with clouds of bright yellow, semidouble flowers. The blooms last nearly two weeks. ‘Harison’s Yellow” is said to have traveled across the country with the pioneers. It needs a sunny spot, good drainage, and room to ramble. A low wall or picket fence is perfect for it. Zones 4-9. Sources, page 92.

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